It’s 2068. Three years ago the CO2 content of the atmosphere fell below 350ppm for the last time, even in the northern winter. Depending on who you listen to, temperatures may have stabilized over the last 20 years or so but it’s still too early to definitively tell (although the recent evidence of some Himalayan glacier growth is encouraging). Sea level rise may have slowed slightly (according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Science), but the sea defense industry won’t be short of business for the foreseeable future. Argument over the carbon-fixing price continues, with fewer and fewer people paying attention.
Use of nitrogen, phosphorous and many other elements and chemicals are a fraction of what they were in the early decades of the 21st Century. Non-renewable resource use is also a fraction of what it once was, and some reserves of rare, important and strategic finite resources are held in perpetuity, earmarked for the use of future generations. Nearly 45% of the planet’s surface is now under some form of legal protection, and regular progress is being made towards the global goal of 50% of the planet as full nature reserve. The human population of the planet is 9.7 billion, most of them in cities and almost all of them online.
The economy is circular. Plastic and other materials are standardized and easily and almost universally recycled. One operation’s waste is usually a resource for another operation, with resource/waste efficiency at the core of industrial design. There is flexible exchange and sharing of all sorts of goods, and refurbishment and reuse is the norm. Since both waste and resources are very expensive, people and businesses organize themselves accordingly. But even if it wasn’t expensive to be inefficient and dirty, nobody wants to be thought of as a “waster”. Nobody likes wasters.
It’s not just the economy that’s circular now – economics is circular too. Every schoolchild knows the Doughnut and understands the world ecologically. Later they learn about how fees are put on resources, pollution and public services and returned to everybody as the citizen’s dividend (of course, there are central bank dividends too, but that’s different). Everybody understands that it’s this redistribution from the heaviest users and polluters to the lightest users and polluters that keeps money flowing through the free market economy while keeping us within the ‘safe space’ between ecological limits and human necessities. The point is that everybody is a commoner now. Even the contrarians who rail against the Commoner Movement are, in fact, commoners if you look at their underlying assumptions. We’re all commoners now.
Some american historians like to trace the Commoner Movement to the 2020 US presidential election in which congressman Carlos Curbelo defeated Donald Trump in the GOP primaries. Although he went on to lose the election, Curbel’s pivotal Carbon Fee & Dividend policy was quickly adopted by the Sanders-Warren administration and then around the world. It was these first carbon dividend payments that grew into the ecotaxes and citizen’s dividend that we know today. Carbon still provides over 20% of the citizen’s dividend – higher than nitrogen and phosphorus combined.
Other historians see the roots of the Commoner Movement well before 2020 in campaigns for policies such as carbon tax and dividend, monetary financing, land value tax and, of course, a basic income (essentially the citizen’s dividend that we know today). Many of the core ideas of the Commoner Movement had been well articulated long ago by people such as Thomas Paine (18th C.), Henry George (19th C.) and Elinor Ostrom (20th C.). But it was after the rise of social media that campaigns for specific, actionable policies aimed at returning common value to society and to individuals began to proliferate. These campaigners were the crucial innovators and early adopters of the idea that shapes the world that we live in today.
In 2068 we take it for granted that all people are inherently equal and that every single person is entitled, as their birthright and inheritance, to a share of the returns on valuable and productive commonly owned assets. It seems obvious that the free market is only free if all participants have the power and security to say “no”, and that those who use the most and pollute the most and who cause the most damage should also pay the most. These things seem like common sense today, but they were considered radical ideas well into this century. Today it’s inconceivable that a free market could include environmental and social freeloading that damages and destroys the freedom of others, but that was once the norm. The market wasn’t always “Equal, Free and Fair”!
With carbon at $527 per ton, most people’s lives today are extremely carbon efficient – even rich people don’t want to be seen to waste carbon. The first carbon taxes were practically insignificant – background noise in the fluctuating price of oil. Even when they started to increase in the 20’s it was initially the effect on investment that was much more significant than the effect on behavior. It wasn’t until carbon reached nearly $100 per ton that people started abandoning it en masse, as the carbon boom of the late 20’s and early 30’s transformed the economy away from carbon.
Today solar heating, generation and cooling panels are widely available at essentially trivial cost, every house has a battery, and every tractor, train, car and delivery vehicle is electric. Many small towns exist completely separate from the industrial grid, even where old housing stock can’t be made fully passive and still needs electric heating. Nearly half the world’s food is now grown indoors or under glass, and every large town and city has it’s garden district. The average tomato is consumed less than 23km from where it’s grown – all year round even in the northern cities. Nitrogen is the only industrially-derived additive to most commercial growing media, and 96% of it is captured in the food cycle. Like any industrial process, most modern food production is essentially a closed system.
Home work, work hubs, flexible hours and general workforce independence means there’s a lot less daily travel now than there was in the past, and VP (virtual presence) means much less long distance conference and business travel. Most people travel a lot when they’re young but, since they can make a good living from almost anywhere, they also tend to end up close to home! Only 30% of the workforce work on a fixed contract for government, corporations or other large organizations and most people work independently. Figures show that approximately one in eight people of working age have no income other than the citizen’s dividend, and that another one in ten earn only a community wage. However in the real world it’s impossible to identify who makes what based on how they live. Most people on high salaries live lifestyles that would be considered modest a century ago, and money and material status just aren’t as important as they once were. It might still be legal to waste as much as you like as long as you pay for it, but what aware, responsible, mentally healthy person would act like that? Who would want to be a waster?
We live in a world in which personal AIs, gene therapy and deliberative democracy are taken for granted. At any one time over 300 people are living on Mars and it looks like the Titan mining station will be profitable within the next year or two. The Spiral Dynamics of Clare W. Graves has long replaced Abraham Maslow‘s Hierarchy of Needs as the accepted organizing structure of our individual motivation and growth, and our educational, media, professional and organizational perspective is based on the famous ‘trinity’ of Awareness, Empathy and Science. Most of us still face many deep and difficult personal challenges, it’s just that we just choose a lot more of them ourselves now.
Those who study the media and society of the early 21st Century tell us that there are three key differences in how people feel today compared to fifty years ago: (1) we have more time, (2) we feel safer, and (3) our future is much more hopeful. We are more relaxed today than we were in the past, and have more time to explore, cultivate and improve ourselves and the world around us. Although serious relative poverty still exists, almost nobody on the planet lives in fear of destitution any more. Everybody has the physical security and freedom from fear that makes equal participation in the market possible (and so much fun!). Everyone understands that markets can’t be free unless they’re fair, and that basic physical security is a perquisite for full market engagement and fair competition. It’s obvious now, but it wasn’t always that way.
Today we don’t just feel safer, more secure and more relaxed on a day-to-day basis than we did in the past – there are also deeper securities. Although the ruins of the unsustainable era are still all around us and the seas are still rising, the environmental trends are almost all positive. Most countries are at or close to the UN target of 5% of GNP for ecological remediation (although much of that is still spent on carbon fixing). Nature is returning in often spectacular ways and, while it will never be the same as it was before the technological revolution and the period of unsustainable expansion, there is much that remains. There is even hope that some coral reefs may come back once sea temperatures begin to fall.
It’s as if the time horizon within which we can realistically allow ourselves to think has opened up in front of us – expanding with the belief that our children and our grandchildren will also live rich, meaningful lives. The growing evidence of our own sustainability makes it psychology safe to think realistically about the far future, and so we make more and more decisions in the context of decades and even centuries, increasingly secure in the knowledge that what we do actually matters in the long term. It’s almost as if meaning has returned to the world.
We are no longer betraying the lives of our ancestors while destroying the lives of our children. We act responsibly and so, although we’re clearly far from perfect, we know that we’re good. And we’re getting better.
There is hope for the future.
[This piece was written in response to B. Lorraine Smith’s challenge for us to imagine the future we want.]